The dizzying highs and the terrifying lows of the evolution of the humble hamburger
The burger is to food what Elton John is to music. It’s been around for a long time and it’s got considerably fancier over the year, but at its heart it’s still about the basics - good music and good beef, or something like that.
You’ll struggle to find a corner of this world that hasn’t seen a burger of some sort or another. On the ubiquitous cuisine scale, it’s only just nudged out by Coca-Cola.
Given the way it’s travelled so well and the sheer amount of time it’s been around, there’s no surprise that the burger has seen its fair share of variations, interpretations and configurations.
THE HUMBLE ORIGINS
As with the origin of most things great, there’s plenty of debate about where the burger, in its modern form, was invented. Several American cities across the country claim to be the home of the hamburger, while citizens of the German town of Hamburger believe they were the first to put meat between bread. It's unlikely that this question will ever be resolved.
Kim Jong Il threw a spanner in the works with his posthumous biography that claimed that he invented the so-called “double bread with meat” in order to provide affordable food to university students.
Regardless of where it was first conceived, the burger has ascended to the pinnacle of food fame while forming the foundation of the fast food industry. Despite this position as the quintessential cheap and cheerful food staple, some brave and adventurous culinary spirits have developed the burger into something far greater, or far worse, than just meat for the masses.
THE MOST EXPENSIVE BURGER
Take, for example, the world’s most expensive burger, a difficult title to pin down. Whilst the clear winner is the $5 000 burger from Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas, most of this cost comes from the bottle of 1990 Chateau Petrus that is served with it.
The most expensive burger-that-is-just-a-burger is mind-blowingly from the somewhat more budget-oriented Burger King chain, which serves a £95 version from one of its London branches. It is made of Wagyu beef, white truffles, Pata Negra ham slices, Cristal onion straws, Modena balsamic vinegar, lambs lettuce, pink Himalayan rock salt, organic white wine and shallo-infused mayonnaise in an Iranian saffron and white truffle dusted bun.
This is all monopoly money, however, if we consider what is technically the most expensive burger ever. A Dutch scientist has been pursuing laboratory-grown beef for several years and believes he is close to perfection. A burger created from this meat will cost around $345,000, though I expect the marketing costs of beef that has never seen a cow will be much, much higher than that.
WHEN BURGERS GO WEIRD
Despite the exorbitant prices, the burgers mentioned above were all relatively traditional in shape, ingredients and cooking method. We are all aware, however, that in this day and age no foodstuff is safe from the violating explorations of molecular gastronomy. Heston Blumenthal provided his own interpretation of the hamburger.
It takes 30 hours to make, requires 32 ingredients, 3 kinds of beef (finely minced chuck and brisket are combined with bigger chunks of minced forerib that’s been aged for 28 days to give the burger an extra depth of flavour) and, quite bafflingly, several square metres of “parchment”. Not something you would throw together for the kids on a Wednesday evening then.
THE DECONSTRUCTED BURGER
In the same vein is the deconstructed burger offered as part of the childhood menu at the gastronomical utopia that is Next, in Chicago. Their burger bun was presented in two forms: as a crouton, and as a splotch which was made by cooking, liquefying, pureeing, freezing and then being spread on an acetate sheet, and that was just the bread. What must have been done to that poor cut of meat; I shudder to even consider. Parts of it are probably still floating in the ether, wondering if they’re a liquid or a gas.
Burgers have also been used to explore previously unknown recesses of food. They have been shown, for example, to be excellent foods for displaying the concept of umami. Umami has nothing to do with Zulu mothers and a lot to do with flavour, being the 5th taste as it were.
The Umami Burger chain in California has created a range of burger-centric dishes using ingredients like shiitake mushroom and Parmesan crisps to celebrate this long-lost taste sensation.
DARK SIDE OF THE BURGER
Unfortunately, though, there is another, darker side to the evolution of the simple burger. The great innovators behind fast food restaurants weren’t content with just one piece of meat between two slices of bread, so they added cheese, then bacon, then onion rings. Now, we have Chilli’s Jalapeno Smokehouse Bacon Burger.
This hulking monstrosity contains 1750 calories, a mere 250 shy of your entire daily allowance. But that isn’t even the worst bit. It will also drop 123 grams of fat onto you, just under twice what you should have in a day, and 5250mg of sodium which is well over double the healthy amount. Eating this is like applying to be an asbestos miner in an active volcano.
THE BIGGEST BURGER MUNCHERS
That said, the common or garden burger is by no means a one-way path to morbid obesity, it’s the quantity that’ll get you. One man, Joey Chestnut from the US, is something of a master of burger consumption. His current world record stands at 103 (not a typo) 2.5-inch burgers in 8 minutes (again, not a typo).
In for the long run, though, is Don Gorske, a retired prison guard from the US. In May of last year he ate his 25 000th Big Mac since his first one 40 years ago, that’s just under 2 a day. Incredibly, this burger enthusiast is still very slim and healthy.
See CNN"s video of him eating burger no 25 000 here:
BURGERS FOR DESSERTS?
Finally, we’ll end like all good things do, with dessert. Dessert burgers are indeed real and I’m not talking about macarons. Relatively simple to create, these burgers usually use sweeter bread for the bun and fruit to replicate the various toppings.
For example, sliced strawberries can replace tomato while mango can be used in the place of cheese. The all-important patty can be replaced with a delicious disc of chocolate brownie to create a wonderfully decadent variation on this most stalwart meal.
From the avant-garde gourmet deconstructions to the murderous fast-food behemoths, the burger shows a desire to adapt itself to any situation or need. It is truly a king amongst foods and a (sometimes) nutritious food legacy.
Read TASTE Assistant Food Ed Hannah's take on her favourite burgers and if you're hungry for burgers right now, simply type the word in the search box and like magic a whole bunch of recipes will appear.
Picture credits: Fox News, Waitrose, Freshandfoodie, Daily Mail.
by Harry Phillips